Primary care physicians are the frontline of healthcare. Though other specialists and providers may come and go, it’s the PCP who often becomes the most consistent and trusted healthcare expert in a patient's life. At the same time, both PCPs and the patients who need them face many challenges – and now both are finding that telemedicine may be the answer.
Like most physicians, PCPs spend considerable time on administrative documentation and managing capacity. Some find their productivity reduced; many experience burnout – particularly if they’re tasked with seeing patients in an underserved area. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a primary care provider shortfall, with numbers landing between 21,000 to 55,000 by 2023. In part, this is because so many medical school graduates who complete their residency in primary care transfer to higher-paying specialties later. One Family Medicine study found that while 40 percent of graduates entered a primary care residency, that shrunk to just 22 percent down the road as those physicians specialized in other clinical disciplines. But other factors drive primary care barriers as well, such as affordability issues and rural shortages.
Convenience, Consistency and Competition
These provider shortages don’t necessarily equal a surplus of patients for every PCP. The patient-provider balance can be unequally distributed in either direction, depending on the region. Today’s primary care provider also faces competition from retail clinics like CVS and Walgreen’s, as well as urgent care centers that hire nurses to work extended hours. Then there are telehealth apps that cater to patients looking for quick one-off visits. For these patients, dialing up a doctor-of-the-day can seem easier than trying to schedule an office visit when they simply want an antibiotic for an ear infection.
Lately the primary care playing field has felt even more crowded thanks to a new contender. Health plans are offering “virtual primary care plans,” which prioritize virtual visits with telehealth doctors over in-person visits to primary care providers. Unlike typical telehealth apps, these virtual plans go beyond one-off visits to provide preventive care, treat chronic disease, and perform diagnostic services. They also provide consistent relationships with the same telehealth physician and may even assign a “care team.” Cigna, Humana and United Healthcare have all launched this kind of virtual primary care option for their members.
You’ve probably spotted the common theme encroaching on traditional primary care: convenience. Patients still want a long-term provider relationship but they also want healthcare on their terms – at the time and place that works best for their hectic lifestyles. When PCPs can only offer rigid care delivery models, it’s no surprise that many are seeing even their established patients jump ship.
Future-Proofing Primary Care
To retain their current patients and attract new ones, PCPs must adapt to the new healthcare marketplace and implement their own telehealth offering. Can they still see patients in their office? Absolutely. But by gradually increasing their percentage of virtual visits, they can balance telehealth with traditional care delivery. A recent survey of PCPs found 20-70 percent of primary care could be performed virtually, with providers using telehealth to see patients for issues like flu symptoms or conjunctivitis while having them come in for X-rays and bone density scans.
A blended telemedicine/in-person practice can help PCPs survive financially – and the benefits extend to both patients and providers in other ways:
- Physicians can reduce their office and headcount expenses by seeing fewer patients in-house.
- Virtual care can help the practice better coordinate care and implement top-of-license care models.
- PCPs can see patients virtually and in the office without breaking the clinical thread.
- Physicians can boost patient acquisition and retention by offering evening and weekend hours to patients who don't want to take PTO for an annual exam. Immediate telehealth appointments can appeal to sick patients who want to be seen quickly without leaving the house.
- That same flexibility benefits retiring physicians looking to gradually decrease their hours, or PCPs returning from parental leave who want to work from home sometimes.
- Patients can count on a local PCP’s expertise for other healthcare resources; only they can recommend the best specialists in town, something an online doctor across the country won't know.
- PCPs can also help their patients with chronic conditions by augmenting office visits with virtual follow-ups to keep patients on track.
- Providers can virtually treat patients in underserved areas on evenings and weekends – helping solve regional care disparities.
At this point, you might be thinking about that age-old telehealth question: what about reimbursement? It’s true that many primary care doctors associated telehealth with low compensation – but the pandemic changed reimbursement models and 36 states now require payment parity, with active bills pending in other states. Medicare has also dramatically loosened its restrictions on telehealth coverage. Now that the industry has witnessed and accepted the clinical validity of telehealth, payers are following suit.
Preparing Primary Care for the Future
Finally, telemedicine helps PCPs build a foundation for an increasingly technological healthcare future. Many clinical settings are adopting artificial intelligence tools to decrease administrative burden, pull clinical insights from public health data, and even perform diagnostic tasks. By transitioning into a blended telehealth and office model, PCPs can better cater to patient preferences, collaborate with specialists, and bring medical expertise to patients in rural areas. Digitizing primary care practices now will confer financial benefits today, as well as a competitive edge tomorrow.